Artificial intelligence (AI) is here. It’s probably in your pocket right now, or perhaps on your table at home. It might be in the next call centre that you telephone, or behind a pop-up ‘Would you like to chat?’ screen next time you shop for something online.
Siri and Cortana and are examples of intelligent personal assistants, both of which are already available on your phone - and there are many more out there, some smarter than others.1 Both Google Home and Amazon Echo (and Echo Dot) are internet-enabled personal assistants that exist in hardware that is always listening for a ‘wake word.’ Once awake, they can obey an assortment of instructions, including controlling a smart home. The Echo boasts a list of 900 ‘skills’ and counting.2 The person that you think that you are speaking to or chatting with on screen could be the AI embodiment of the Turing Test - when a human cannot tell whether the entity that it is interacting with is human or not.3
Of course, none of these is true artificial intelligence - yet. They are fabulous simulacra of intelligence, or what passes for intelligence. After all, how often are we called upon to think - really think - each day? George Bernard Shaw once said “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I’ve made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” When our own level of thinking is on such a low level, should we really be surprised that AI and the algorithms behind it are progressively usurping us?
We see robots in factories building cars and we see robots in cement plants stacking and palletising sacks. Most of the other roles in a cement plant, you might imagine, are not replaceable by machines or by AI. But let’s take a closer look.
Among the more extraordinary trends in the next decade may be the elimination of many lawyers (not literally - just their jobs), estate agents/realtors, financial advisors and even medical practitioners. Each of these jobs is effectively acting in an apparently sophisticated way on a series of data inputs. However, when broken down, the individual steps are much simpler and might be replaceable by a suitable algorithm. A medical diagnostician is using a mental database and a series of flow sheets to arrive at a diagnosis: A financial advisor is using a knowledge of financial products, the markets and your own risk appetite to advise you - and a well-designed algorithm with a team of analysts behind it (for example Nutmeg) can potentially do this much better.4
Various (mainly German) technology providers are now aiming to link-up all of the devices in a cement plant to make them talk to each other in a smarter way - with the whole thing controlled by either a centralised computer-based brain or a series of decentralised brains (our guts and bowels apparently have enough neurons to count as a separate intelligence from our main brains - hence their sometimes waywardness). Input from sensors around the plant will be interpreted by some form of AI - such as Dalog’s, seen on our front cover this month - and, if required, a person will be detailed to go out and fix it. The AI might be based on neural networks that learn ‘on the job’ or it might have been trained by someone who has done the job for many years and who is about to retire - to be replaced by lines of code.
As you will see in this month’s news sections, some cement plants are spectacularly over-manned, with 2000 employees ‘working’ at a plant that could cope with ‘just’ 500 workers. The fact that equivalent plants elsewhere might do the job with 200 workers shows how expectations vary worldwide. What happens though, when AI and smart machines have made many more jobs redundant - maybe reducing headcount on a 1Mt/yr plant to fewer than 100?
This is when some of us might take advantage of a concept called the ‘Basic Income,’ which is a sum of money paid to all citizens by the state.5 There is a growing movement worldwide that argues that if machines and AI take our jobs, the human population might finally be able to move beyond its perpetual struggle for survival and material gain, and just do what it wants to do. Although this might feel like filling in the time between birth and - let’s face it - death, this is what many people strive towards for their retirement years. I can think of a few pleasant things, which might include gardening, cycling, rock-climbing, hill-walking, singing, making cider, gardening, reading, going to the movies, eating good food, meeting friends, spending time with family, sailing, travelling and learning a new language.
So - what would you like to do, as opposed to what you have to do?